How do you get internet access?
“How do you get internet access” definitely needs to be on our FAQ list. Although I’m sure I’ve talked about this subject a dozen times or more, we still get asked this question on a regular basis. To begin, although many people have dreams of being off-the-grid when they set out cruising, accessing the internet remains as important for those on the water as it is for those on land. And it’s not just those of us who keep blogs who feel that way. We have friends who home-school their kids on their boat who need access to the web for lessons and research. Many cruisers use the internet to acquire up-to-date weather forecasts. Countless others use Skype and other web-based telephone products to keep in touch with family members, and of course banking and bill payments are more often than not carried out online. All of these things and more mean that obtaining internet access is important and an inability to do so can cause a bit of stress.
So, back to the question, how do we get on the net? To begin, we, and most other cruisers, use a Wi-Fi amplifier and antenna combo to increase the range that we can pick up signals. Specifically we use the WirieAP system which operates as described on their site. Many others use a system based on the Ubiquiti Bullet. Regardless of which system you choose, having one is a necessity. Using the laptop computer’s built-in antenna just won’t cut it unless you’re sitting inside a Starbucks.
The second step to getting online is being in range to pick up a signal. Having an amplifier, as described above, helps but if you anchor too far off the beaten path, it’s unlikely you’ll find a signal. You may choose to do this of course, for a variety of reasons, but you must be prepared to give up access to the web if you do. Fortunately, we have found signals around almost all of the popular anchorages all the way from Canada to Grenada.
OK, so you’ve picked up a signal, how do you access it? If you’re lucky, an unlocked signal will show up in your amplifier’s software. If so, connect to it and consider yourself fortunate. More times than not we do find open signals. Unfortunately, where we’re anchored right now, that is not the case. Although there are plenty of signals showing up, all of them are locked, which obviously complicates matters.
If there is a commercial internet provider showing up in your list of Wi-Fi signals, you might then choose to pay for access. Depending on how desperate we are, and how much the service costs, we may opt to take advantage of this. Occasionally we’ll even pay for access in spite of there being a free signal available, especially if the free one is too slow. Occasionally however, such as where we are right now, the commercial signals do not have any provision for paying for access online. This I do not understand at all, and can be extremely frustrating.
What if the locked signal is originating from a nearby business? Frequently you’ll be able to tell this by the name that shows up on your computer. If so, often you can visit the business (bar, restaurant, etc.) and if you take advantage of their services, purchasing a drink for example, they will share the password to their network. If you’re anchored close enough, and they don’t change the password daily, you may then be able to access their system later on from your boat. We made a quick attempt at that here in Barbuda but were thrown off our game by the $19.00 US beer at the bar!
The last resort for us is bringing our computer to shore to get internet access. Not to mention the fact that this is inconvenient, taking expensive electronics in the dinghy is something we try to avoid. We do have to do it from time to time, today being one such example, but we don’t like it.
Update Jan. 5, 2013: Check this post for new additions.